Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market

The Long-Ignored Site where the Civil Rights Movement Started

Did they restore the wrong building?

On the evening of August 24, 1955, at Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market, Emmett Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant. It was a history bending whistle. According to the sign that has stood in front Bryant’s Grocery since 2011, the whistle jump-started the American Civil Rights Movement.

Till arrived at Bryant’s Grocery around 7:30 pm along with several cousins and friends. The primary attraction was the checkers game on the front porch. With his companions thus engaged, Till entered the store. For a few brief minutes, he was alone in the store with shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old, white, two-time beauty pageant winner.

No one knows for sure just what happened inside the store. Carolyn’s first statement indicated that Till flirted with her. Just before the trial, her story changed. Till did not just flirt; he physically accosted her and propositioned her with “unprintable words.” In 2017 Duke University historian Timothy Tyson claimed that Bryant confessed that the dramatic parts of her story were not true. In 2018, however, Carolyn’s daughter-in-law, Marsha Bryant, told the Jackson Clarion Ledger that Carolyn never confessed anything to Tyson.

Regardless of what happened inside the store, we know well what happened next. Carolyn’s husband Roy, his half-brother J. W. Milam, and an array of accomplices kidnapped Till, tortured him, shot him, attached his body to a cotton-gin fan with a length of barbed wire, and dropped his body in a river.

While the brutal murder may have jump-started the civil rights movement, the grocery store has been allowed to fall into ruin. After the acquittal, the black sharecroppers that once kept Bryant’s Grocery in business refused their patronage, and the store was put up for sale less than a month after the trial. For the next three decades, the building was maintained as a country grocery by different owners—first as Wolfe’s and then as Young’s Grocery and Market.

Since the early 1980s, the site of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market has been owned by the Tribble family. Ray Tribble was a juror in the 1955 Till trial, and his children now own the site. In 2011, the Tribble family led the charge to renovate the adjacent gas station, Ben Roy’s Service Station. Although Ben Roy’s has no civil rights history, the family was able to leverage its proximity to Bryant’s Grocery to obtain money set aside for civil rights restoration. Unfortunately, the restored Ben Roy’s makes no mention of Till, the civil rights movement, or Bryant’s Grocery.

Several parties have offered to buy the property from the Tribbles in the interest of restoring it as a memory site. As of 2019, the Tribbles have refused to sell the property for less than $4 million. While the world sees Bryant’s Grocery as the origin of the civil rights movement, the Tribbles apparently see it as potentially valuable commercial property.